On First Listen

on First Listen is a regular column that forces our regular writers to listen to bands that they’ve never heard—but by all rights should have—and charts the reaction.

“I went to see Kraftwerk at the Warfield in like 1998, and there were all these ponytailed, Indiana-Jones-hat-having, aviator-glasses, pot-bellied UNIX programmers openly weeping during “Radioactivity” while their mortified ten year-old sons stood dutifully beside them.” -- Chris Onstad

Two discs arrived in the mail last month. They were modestly notated (Kraftwerk 1 and 2) and packaged with a tracklist, printed in workmanlike font—Courier, perhaps?—on a sheet of computer paper. They were from Associate Editor Todd Hutlock, and they were just in time. I’d badly neglected Kraftwerk during my forays into motorik, electro-pop, and garden-variety krautrock; yet while doing so, I built them up to be shadow-Beatles, the gods of a parallel musical order. With each purchase of Neu! 75, Faust IV, or Amon Düül II: The Düülening, my fear grew. Was there a penalty for ignoring Kraftwerk? Do mp3s of 2 Live Crew and Bambaataa count for anything? These guys are made of plastic and hanger-wire; surely I could outrun them if necessary. And so forth.

Mr. Todd had compiled a generous sampler, covering everything from Ralf & Florian through the Expo 2000 single. I knew that optimally, I had to be surrounded by machines, and it was laundry day. I set my CD player on a washer and dove in.

“Autobahn”—surely I had downloaded it at some point? Anyway, I needed to get the full-length dose, if only to understand that the thrills Kraftwerk give come not from progression, but from propulsion. After twenty minutes’ navigation of tiny shifts and cheerful throb, I felt like I’d been taken somewhere, even if the track, structurally, seemed to stand in place. But it was a lot brighter than I had imagined. The selections got shadier, though: “Radio-Activity” is a cute pun displayed starkly, with a muted synth choir and a coolly composed singer. “Radioactivity is in the air for you and me,” sings Ralf Hütter, sounding for all the world like the narrator of DeLillo’s White Noise. Here is the dark core obscured by every charting New Wave group.

Is the radio, is technology, a threat or promise to these guys? At least Faust could call a track “Krautrock” and have a laugh. On second thought, there’s “Showroom Dummies,” which pairs what ought to be a goofy concept—sentient mannequins break for freedom, decide to go clubbin’—with harsh sound effects and plainsong. The pisstake on jet-setting vacuousness, “The Model,” didn’t do much for me, but I still liked it better than Roxy Music.

“Trans Europe Express” plays it straighter, though, and I was pleasantly surprised by the skittering drums, remembering that Bambaataa spun gold from this. Again, I picked up on an impenetrable pathos, a funereal futurist playground. Works well in the car; but honestly, nearly every track does.

Anyway, if my compilation is to be believed, Kraftwerk caught a major vector into pop pleasantness. “Neon Lights” started off my second disc, and immediately became my favorite, with its yawning, epic feel. Genial lasers skim the prow of a fractured chord progression… I put on my Windows Starfield screensaver and pictured the trigonometry. “Pocket Calculator” has a wicked percolating groove, but I had to be in the right mood for the dated lyrics (“I’m the operator with my pocket calculator / I’m controlling / And composing”). I assumed “It’s More Fun to Compute” would be more of the same, but the track is no more than the titular phrase and variations on a foreboding sequence.

On the other hand, “Numbers” begins evil (perhaps Ralf and Florian and Co. knowingly exploited how raunchy the German language can sound to my untrained ears), but from there it’s a “Mickey”-style drum pattern, squelching noises, and heavily processed counting. Maybe a good segue in a DJ set, but less effective on its own. Same goes for the more-fun but still silly “Boing Boom Tschak,” with its Max Headroom flashes and too-brief instrumental interludes. Upon reflection, I see the nascent flourishes of industrial (but hadn’t industrial found flesh before Electric Café? There’s another under-explored route for me), so that’s something. The set closes with “Expo 2000,” and while the mechanisms are shopworn, the flowering pulse and synthetic strings, collapsing upon themselves like breakers, are anything but.

Going into this, I had a good idea of how Kraftwerk would sound. Sedate tempos, icy robotmensch narrators, blips and beeps: I wasn’t disappointed. But there was a sense of humor, too, and a quiet mastery of form, texture and emotion. With strict parameters, my boys executed a laudable array of commands. My suspicions are confirmed: there will be judicious purchasing, likely Radio-Activity and Computer World.

Disc 01
Elektrisches Roulette (from Ralf und Florian)
Autobahn (from Autobahn)
Radioaktivität (from Radio-Aktivität)
Ätherwellen (from Radio-Aktivität)
Schaufensterpuppen (from Trans Europa Express)
Showroom Dummies (from Trans-Europe Express)
Trans Europa Express (from Trans Europa Express)
Trans-Europe Express (from Trans-Europe Express)
Das Modell (from Die Mensch-Maschine)
The Model (from The Man Machine

Disc 02
Neonlicht (from Die Mensch-Maschine)
Neon Lights (from The Man Machine)
Taschenrechner (from Computerwelt)
Pocket Calculator (from Computer World)
Dentaku (from Computer World [Japan])
Nummern (from Computerwelt)
Numbers (from Computer World)
It’s More Fun to Compute (from Computerwelt)
Tour De France (Radio Version) (from “Tour De France” Single)
Boing Boom Tschak (from Electric Café)
Techno Pop (from Electric Café)
The Telephone Call (from Electric Café)
Expo 2000 (Radio Mix) (from Expo2000 EP)

By: Brad Shoup
Published on: 2006-03-13
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